St. John Passion: a guide to Bach's Passiontide masterpiece and its best recordings
Paul Riley listens intently to the dramatic choruses, plangent arias and compelling narrative of Bach’s first setting of the Passiontide tale, St John Passion, as he selects the finest recordings available
When and why did Bach compose St John Passion?
The job description couldn’t have been plainer. As the Thomaskantor in Leipzig, Bach was required to compose and conduct church music that was neither too long nor operatic, but ‘conducive to devotion’ – and so, as he contemplated his first Passion setting for the Good Friday Vespers of 1724, he had demands other than just theological to ponder.
In the event, the resulting St John Passion must have pinned its Nicolai Church congregation to the pews – if not operatic, it is certainly dramatic (a fine line, almost overstepped at times). Rooted in the past, yet fuelled by vibrant Italian imports such as recitative and the da capo aria, it inaugurated a choral journey that would occupy Bach to the end of his life.
Unlike the longer St Matthew Passion that was to follow, there is no ‘finished’ version of the St John. Rather, four incarnations (one a major overhaul), retell the story of Christ’s betrayal and death with an immediacy and power that does indeed inspire devotion among both believers and non-believers to this day.
The best recordings of St John Passion
John Eliot Gardiner (conductor)
Mark Padmore (Evengelist) etc; Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists (2003)
For many John Eliot Gardiner’s 1986 recording was something of a benchmark; so when a new contender for their affections emerged, it was not entirely surprising to find that the usurper was none other than Gardiner (below) himself – now at the helm of a Monteverdi Choir ‘class of 2003’.
- Sir John Eliot Gardiner on his Bach Pilgrimage with the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists
Always a conductor with a special feeling for Bach, in the interim he’d made a Millennium ‘Cantata Pilgrimage’, performing all the church cantatas on their allotted liturgical dates. The experience has nourished this live performance, originally broadcast from the suitably ecclesiastical acoustic of the Königslutter Kaiserdom.
Gardiner’s dramatic instincts turn the Gospel’s ‘there and then’ into the ‘here and now’, and his probing response to text shows equal acuity, whether caressing a chorale or striking sparks from his choir, reinvented as a blood-curdling mob. Their buoyancy, precision and passion is matched by the poise of The English Baroque Soloists, and holding everything together is the sovereign Evangelist of Mark Padmore – first among vocal equals that include mezzo Bernarda Fink’s noble ‘Es ist vollbracht’, soprano Joanna Lunn’s glacially shell-shocked ‘Zerfliesse mein Herze’, and Peter Harvey’s radiant ‘Mein teurer Heiland’. From the ear-opening layering of the opening chorus to the unswerving trajectory of the finale chorale, Gardner accomplishes all with blessings to spare.
John Butt (conductor)
Nicholas Mulroy (Evangelist) etc; Dunedin Consort and Players (2011)
Who could have predicted that, a quarter of a century since conductor Andrew Parrott’s small-scale St John Passion first appeared, one-(or slightly more)-to-a-part performances would have caught on to such an extent? ‘Small’ has proved not only beautiful but commonplace in recent recordings by the likes of Sigiswald Kuijken, Monica Huggett and, here, John Butt.
Butt’s recording isn’t just musically outstanding – every nuance weighed, daringly rough-hewn when required – but, for the first time on disc, the Passion is presented within its original liturgical context. As the closing chorale is consoled by Gallus’s funeral motet Ecce quomodo moritur the impact is breathtaking – and earthed by the unvarnished, unaccompanied unison of the congregational singing.
Philippe Herreweghe (conductor)
Mark Padmore (Evangelist) etc; Collegium Vocale Ghent (2001)
Harmonia Mundi HML 590 8351/53
When Bach returned to the St John Passion in 1725 he gave it a radical makeover. Out went the erstwhile opening chorus. In came a meditative opening ‘O Mensch bewein’ that would also find its way into the St Matthew, a somewhat superfluous concluding chorale-chorus, and three new arias of astonishing vigour, inventiveness and theatricality. In effect he created a new work with imperatives of its own. Herreweghe’s ample forces – Rolls Royce casting including Mark Padmore and countertenor Andreas Scholl – honour the spirit of 1725 to the letter in a reading shot through with graceful inevitability, unforced truthfulness and profound humanity.
Hermann Max (conductor)
Jan Kobow (Evangelist) etc; Rheinische Kantorei, Das Kleine Konzert (2006)
CPO 777 091-2
Mendelssohn’s public rehabilitation of the St Matthew Passion is well chronicled, but less well-known is Schumann’s part in the re-evaluation of the St John – a work he considered ‘bolder’ and ‘more poetic’. This reconstruction of Schumann’s 1851 Düsseldorf performance might not ordinarily earn its place in a pantheon of the ultimate ‘greats’ – Christ can sound like a world-weary accountant at times, and not all the soloists match Jan Kobow’s intelligently engaged Evangelist – but, warmed by clarinets, ingenious re-scorings, reverently burnished chorales and a piano tinkling exuberant arpeggios one moment, grand guignol the next, it’s more than a historical curiosity. Its sepia-tinted challenge to current performance orthodoxy illuminates one composer’s genius through the prism of another.